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Harford governments working out details to have public meetings while practicing social distancing

The novel coronavirus was on everyone’s minds at local government meetings across Harford County this week.

On Tuesday, the Harford County Council held a public hearing for an empty room and those streaming the meeting at home.

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The day before, Bel Air’s town commissioners and staff fanned out in the town hall, sitting in chairs placed about six feet apart from each other, and in the public gallery, without public attendance.

Aberdeen preemptively cancelled its March 23 council meeting and also moved chairs in the council chamber to social-distancing range.

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Havre de Grace rearranged seating to encourage social distancing too, but carried on with its meeting Monday, where the mayor introduced his budget for the coming fiscal year. It already announced the April 6 city council meeting would be cancelled.

None know when government meetings may return to normal, but they will continue to happen as budget season approaches, though with some changes to business as usual for the protection of citizens, officials said.

The spread of the novel coronavirus led Harford County Executive Barry Glassman to declare a state of emergency in the county Wednesday, suspending all legal and procedural deadlines enumerated in the county’s charter. According to a news release from the county executive’s office, Glassman emplaced the order to “provide flexibility in maintaining county government functions during the public health crisis.”

Director of Governmental and Community Relations Cindy Mumby said the emergency order — which will last 30 days from whenever Gov. Larry Hogan ends Maryland’s state of emergency — helps the county to continue operations in view of the risks COVID-19 presents.

“It really does lay the groundwork for that kind of flexibility that will let the county executive continue local operations and still maintain that social distancing and best practices,” Mumby said.

The order would, for instance, allow committees and boards critical to county operations to meet on a conference call instead of gathering in a room in addition to authorizing receipt of federal and state emergency funds.

County government has already closed many of its in-person functions to prevent transmission of the virus, Mumby said, and the order is in line with the prophylactic steps the administration has been encouraging and taking.

Though the order coincided with a third Harford County resident testing positive for the virus — a 47-year-old resident of Harford County tested positive for the virus while working in Boston, where he is now in self-isolation, Mumby said — the state of emergency was not in direct response to the new case.

“This really is consistent with what we have been implementing to slow the spread of the virus,” Mumby said. “This allows for continuity of county government operations.”

Harford County Council President Patrick Vincenti said the legislative body is working on ways for citizens to submit comments via phone and email in lieu of attending meetings, the last of which the public could not attend in person, but could still watch on live video.

The meetings will stay closed “in the short term,” Vincenti said, for everyone’s safety.

“We have made provisions for the public to participate either through email or calling,” Vincenti said. "We wanted to do our best to allow our public, as is their right, to participate in the legislative process.”

Beyond the closure, the county council is still working as normal. Vincenti also announced meetings on next fiscal year’s budget at the meeting, though he said the dates could change. The council is set to receive the budget April 14, he said, and will hold work sessions on the proposed budget April 23, 24, 27 and 28. The sessions will be in council chambers, live-streamed and archived. Public hearings on the budget are scheduled for May 6 and 14.

"The budget is absolutely on our agenda ... That is our number one charge as a legislative body” he said. “We will continue to legislate as we are supposed to until otherwise told not to.”

Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady said the city council made the decision to cancel its upcoming meeting on March 23 to avoid risk to city residents. Nothing pressing was on the agenda, so it was cancelled out of an abundance of caution.

A self-described “open-meetings nerd,” McGrady said the council is uncertain how it will reconcile the public’s right to access the meetings with the risk of gathering in a public place, but whatever precautions are taken will not allow the five-person board to make fly-by-night legislative decisions outside of the public eye. The council meetings are recorded and archived on the city’s website.

“We don’t have any plans to ban [the public from] meetings, but we may take precautions for the public’s safety for public participation in our meetings," McGrady said. "We don’t want to put anybody in harm’s way unduly.”

Much is up in the air, McGrady said, especially as budget season rolls around. He said the city was waiting for the state to pass its budget so Aberdeen could get a sense of how much highway user revenue it may receive. Currently, the city has not begun its budget deliberations.

“We are going to play it by ear, working with the federal, state and county governments to ensure we are being financially responsible with our budget operations while maintaining the public safety side of it,” McGrady said.

At Monday’s meeting of the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners, Mayor Amy Chmielewski noted and praised the public’s absence from the meeting.

"I am glad to see our public stayed home this evening,“ she said. “[They are] listening to our public officials.”

Community and public relations manager for the town, Patti Parker, said employees are still hard at work, and various options were being considered to guarantee the public’s access to open meetings of the board of commissioners. There has also been no loss of services to town residents.

The town’s charter requires the commissioners meet, so they are considering options, she said.

"We’re looking into having virtual meetings,” Parker said. “We are working on how to include the public in that.”

While the town administrative building has not closed, Parker urged people to practice social distancing and, if possible, to reach town employees electronically or over the phone instead of in-person.

“Most of our things can be done via the website,” she said. "If it could be a phone call and not a visit, we would love that.”

In Havre de Grace, Mayor William T. Martin submitted his preliminary budget to the City Council on Monday, a spending package for fiscal 2021 that includes a $659,300 marine facilities fund, a $13.9 million water and sewer fund and a $20.3 million general fund. The mayor said he plans to keep water and sewer rates the same next year, and the current property tax rate will remain the same at $0.565 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Martin’s budget for next year is focused on capital projects such as water and sewer infrastructure improvements funded by part of a $15 million bond measure approved by Havre de Grace voters in February. Other major capital projects include stormwater and shoreline remediation, supported by grants from Harford County and the state, including nearly $1.9 million for shoreline remediation along Water Street on property the city acquired from the county in 2017.

Two City Council work sessions on the budget are scheduled for March 30 and April 13. The sessions, which would normally be open to the public, can be viewed online via livestream, according to a Thursday news release from the city.

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City leaders had not determined, as of when the mayor introduced his budget Monday, whether the work sessions would be open to the public or just livestreamed.

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“Either way, it won’t be done in secrecy,” Martin said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the Harford County Council will receive the budget. It has been updated to reflect accurate information.

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